Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Islamist Retreat from God

The following is an extract from the book titled "Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty" written by Mustafa Akyol

    "Despite all its religious brouhaha, then, Islamism was in fact a "secular" political project – as in apparent in its slogans. Egyptian activist Hasan al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which would become one of the two pillars of Islamism (along with Mawdudi's Jamaat-e-Islami), contrasted "Islam" to both socialism and capitalism and, of course, argued that it was superior to both. The problem was not only the shallowness of this rhetoric – Islam does not provide a blueprint for governance – but also its relegation of Islam to a collectivist "system," devoid of personal religiosity.

    Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the late professor of religion observed this strange trade-off  between God and politics in the study of the evolution of the Egyptian journal Majallat al-azhar from 1930 to 1948. During that time, the journal had two editors. The first, from 1930 to 1933, was al-Khidr Hussain, a traditional Muslim. He saw religion as a "transcendent idea rather than political or historical entity," and he was confident enough to criticize Muslim behavior. The journal's articles were full of either moral instructions or theological contemplations. The sublime beauty of nature, for example, was interpreted as a sign of God's majesty. God, apart from everything else, was the object of veneration.(1)

    In 1933, Farid Wajdi, an Islamist, took over the magazine, and the content became increasingly political. Wajdi's main goal was to assure his readers that Islam as a "system" was perfect, especially when compared to Western systems. "The human reality of Islam," in other words, was the new object of veneration, and "this earthly value had in some sense replaced the transcendent God." According to Smith, a "profound irreligiousness" pervaded Wajdi's journal, and God appeared remarkably seldom throughout its pages.(2)

    Quite tellingly, this retreat from God did not bring any happiness on earth. In every country where they came to power – Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan – Islamists failed to create the heaven they promised. For it was not "Islam" in power, but totalitarianism in Islamic garb, and any totalitarianism is doomed to fail.

    Allowing Islamists to engage in this trial-and-error process is perhaps better than allowing them to cling to an untested utopia. In places where they were not allowed to compete politically, they grew more radical, and ultimately violent. In Egypt, the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood by the country's successive Herods – Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak – created more radical offshoots of the organization. Sayyid Qutib, the Arab counterpart of Mawdudi, grew more and more strident as a result of the torture he suffered in Egypt's  terrible prisons. His consequent call for Jihad would inspire many radicals, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, after having his own share of Egyptian torture, became the mastermind of al-Qaeda. (3)

    The stories of these modern-day Zealots are not well known in the West – ever since some of them decided to attack the very heart of modern day Rome on September 11, 2001. Since that tragic day, concerned Americans and other Westerners have focused on and discussed "the trouble with radical Islam."

    An equally important discussion should be held on how the more inspiring interpretations of Islam will be able to flourish. We have seen that the secularist project is a part of the problem, and not the solution. The attempt to push religion out of Muslim minds creates, in its worst forms, authoritarian regimes. Even its mild forms are unhelpful, for they fall short of addressing the religious aspirations of Muslim societies, something  that is here to stay in the foreseeable future. We, after all, live not in a secularizing world but a de-secularizing one. (4)

   But we have also seen that these two extremes – secularist and Islamist Authoritarianism – were not the only options facing Muslim societies a century ago: there were also an emerging Islamic modernism that synthesized liberal politics with Muslim values. Was that an oddity of a bygone age? Or is it still a promising idea?

    This is a question many minds from all over the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, are pondering these days. And the most interesting answer comes, again, from good old Turkey."
Some references used: 

(1) Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 94-95; Armstrong, A History of God, p.367.

(2) Armstrong, A History of God, p.367.

(3) "For a connection between the experience of torture and radicalization, see Chris Zambelis, "Is there a Nexus between Torture and Radicalization?," Terrorism Monitor (Jameston Foundation) 6, no. 13 (June 26, 2008)."

(4) "See Peter L. Berger et al., eds., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999)."

I will hopefully put in more extracts in the future that deal with the questions in the end of this section and more. =)